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How to Waste $55 in Washington D.C. (Hint: Take a Bus Tour)

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I had never been to Washington D.C. Recently my wife had the opportunity to go for work and I figured this was a good opportunity for me to see the sights. She was able to get a couple of days off of work and on her first day she suggested we go on a bus tour. We decided to go with GrayLine DC - and their DC in a Day Tour - at $55 per person. As you can tell from the title it was a big mistake. (Note: In the title, I'm assuming that the person reading this is one person and thus isn't spending the $110 we did.)

Let me take you through the day in a series of bullet points:

  1. Capitol Building - The bus drops us off at the Capitol building at 9:00 and says he'll be back to pick us up at 11:00AM. For obvious security reasons the bus can't park that close to the Capitol. Our group walks around to the building and we find that it closed to the public today for a special ceremony. So we now have 2 hours with no way to contact our bus driver to see something else. (Note to tour guides: If you aren't going to be with the group, leave your cell phone number behind so that people can reach you. Also get everyone in the tours cell phone so if they are late to the meeting spot they can be reminded). Fortunately the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court are behind the Capitol, so we head there. The Library of Congress had an interesting exhibit about Herb Block. It also had a lot of information on the Declaration of Independence and other notable historical documents. It was somewhat interesting and may have been better than Capitol. I couldn't tell you since I didn't see the Capitol. The Supreme Court was pretty boring with not much to see or do.
  2. White House Visitor Center - The next stop was the White House Visitor Center. I thought this was going be the highlight of the tour... after all you don't get too much bigger than the White House in D.C. Unfortunately after the 9/11 attacks they moved the White House Visitor Center so it's away from the actual White House. When I visit a "visitor center", I actually expect to see the place. The White House Visitor Center was mostly pictures and a couple of artifacts. While I thought it would be difficult to be more disappointed, I was wrong. The bus driver mentioned that we could walk from the Visitor Center to the southern part of the White House and see it. The website exclaims "You might even see the President!" We went to the south side, but it was more blocked off than Fort Knox. You could only see specs of whites through some dense trees and part of what may have been a flag poking out. I imagine the specs wouldn't even be visible if it were summer time when the trees had leaves on them.
  3. Smithsonian (American History version) - This was by far the best stop on the trip. The Star-Spangled Banner alone was amazing. However, seeing everything in the Smithsonian in two hours is like trying to do Europe in 5 days. It's destined to fail. We also have to eat lunch in this time. The Smithsonian's cafeteria is overpriced with a roast beef sandwich, a chicken salad wrap and a drink running us over $22.00.
  4. Ford's Theatre - You might know this landmark from such events as The Place that Lincoln was Assassinated. Continuing on the disappointment track, the theater was actually closed as there was a performance. There was a museum portion of it open. We got to go through that and then across the street to see the 700 square foot place where Lincoln actually died (actually called The House Where Lincoln Died). Looking at blood-stained pillows... kind of morbid. We finish here with 25 minutes left on this stop before the tour continues. My wife and I decide we might as well pick up a glass of wine, but the wine bar is closed as it's between lunch and dinner.
  5. WWII Memorial - Outside the famous reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial is the WWII Memorial. Unlike other memorials with names on them (I think Vietnam Memorial - haven't been), this is more like a really big fountain. There are 56 pillars for all the US states and territories during WWII (I learned that the Philipines was once part of the United States (my history teachers never covered WWII because they started the year with Columbus). The big disappointment here was that the reflecting pool was drained for cleaning. It resembled a construction zone.

That was the whole tour. I would have liked to visit either the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, but that wasn't on the list. I probably would have preferred the Jefferson Memorial over the Ford Theatre. I also would have liked to see the Smithsonian (Natural History version) and the Hope Diamond.

Despite all the above, perhaps the worst part is that we were staying in a hotel (Harrington Hotel - good for those on a budget) that was within about a mile of all places. When we weren't able to get wine after Ford's Theatre, we decided to walk two blocks back to our hotel just to visit the bathroom. It made the whole bus ride pretty useless (especially with the excellent and cheap Metro system here).

While we were issued tickets for Ford Theatre, I found out that tickets to the museum are free. In fact, each stop on our tour was free. I'll take some responsibility, we could have researched things better and realized that we could have done them on our own. On the other hand, I think the tour company should take some responsibility and not book places that are closed or under renovations when there are a lot more other things to see and do. Let my experience be a warning to anyone else considering a D.C. tour.

Last updated on March 12, 2010.

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12 Responses to “How to Waste $55 in Washington D.C. (Hint: Take a Bus Tour)”

  1. DK says:

    Sorry to hear about your experience. I’ve been to DC twice, both times in college. Being the college kid, I was doing DC on the cheap, and it was great because of what you mentioned…most things were free, and close to the hotel!

    I would recommend you definitely take the walk over to the Jefferson Memorial, especially at night! Gorgeous!

    Also, if you have time, check out Chinatown (use the fine metro system you mentioned). I wish I knew the name of the place where we ate…it was wonderful!

    Happy travels!

  2. Michele says:

    Wow. Bus tours suck. But hey, lessons learned. I used to live in DC years ago and would grab the Metro and go to the Smithsonian for lunch. Good times. I agree about Chinatown, best places to eat are there. One of the great things about DC is everything is either walking distance or connected on the Metro. I am not much of a “tour” person, I think the key here is to use that free resource called the internet and make a plan from there.

    My favorite starting point is the Lincoln memorial, because down the hill is the Vietnam mem, across the street is the Korean mem, the reflecting pool, a good sturdy walk to the capital, washington memorial, smithsonian, and the metro is your friend.

    Hope you can get back there again and see more.

  3. Clever Dude says:

    Hey, you come to DC and didn’t ask one of the 5000 DC PF bloggers for advice? I know that hotel (I used to work at IRS, just 2 blocks away). Could have told you all the things you wanted to see are walking distance from that hotel, especially the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (my fav). The Capitol building is a bit of a hike, as is the Lincoln Memorial, but on a nice day, it’s worth it.

    As far as tours of these sites, we (DC area residents) have even struck out when we weren’t aware congress was in session, but we have been in the White House and Capitol. I agree you should have checked out the Jefferson Memorial, but that’s definitely a hike on foot. For the Washington Monument, you can order tickets online so you can select your time. The tix are free, but there’s a $1-2 fee for reserving them.

    Not sure what you mean about the White House. I think you just didn’t go south enough because from E Street (closed to vehicles) you can see the entire south lawn. We’ve seen Bush and his dog Barney on the lawn one time. You can also see the north side just fine (and be much closer to the actual house), but the south view is the more classic one.

    Next time you’re here, hit me up and we’ll show you the sites! They’re even better at night (on a nice summer night, that is). They’re lit up beautifully.

  4. Lazy Man says:

    That E street that was closed to vehicles was also closed to foot traffic. A policeman said they often do that if the President (or other important people) is coming or going from the White House.

  5. ctreit says:

    I am not a big fan of bus tours anywhere. I like to organize my own trips and hit the sites I want to see. This does take a bit of preparation, but it is well worth it to me. While I am reading up on the place that I am about to visit, I also get pretty excited about actually going there. This excitement usually adds to the experience of being there. One of the sources I consult most often is http://www.lonelyplanet.com/us and the books these guys publish.

  6. LindyMint says:

    Did they at least tell you some interesting factoids while you rode from stop to stop?

  7. Lazy Man says:

    They did. However, the tour guide had this weird way of messing up the pronounciation of everything. He wasn’t foreign and it wasn’t an accent, but perhaps he had an unusual disorder. For example the FBI Building was J Edgar “Hooger.” The Smithsonian had “Funz” jacket (instead of Fonzie’s jacket) and “Juju” Child’s kitchen (instead of Julia). If it is a brain disorder, I am sympathetic. I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or amused by it. I think I was more amused.

  8. First Step says:

    I took my kids (probably 11 & 9 at the time) on the Tourmobile tour. These are similar to trams, and you can get off at the stops of interest to you or stay on and have a driving tour. I looked up the prices, and it’s $27/adult ($13/child) for one day or $35 for a 2-day pass ($17/child).

    Since the Jefferson Memorial and FDR Memorial are hard to walk/drive to, it was the best way for us to visit there. The Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial, Korean War Memorial & WWII Memorial are fairly close together, so we walked between them, and then got back on Tourmobile at the WWII Memorial.

    The White House tour was lame in 1994, so I’m sure it’s worse since 9/11.

    My dad lives about an hour away from DC, so we frequently go to the city when we visit him. We’ve been to most of the museums/famous sites now, and my favorites are National Gallery of Art East Building, US Botanic Gardens, and the FDR Memorial. The kids’ favorites are Natural History, the sculpture gardens near the Hirshorn Museum, and the Library of Congress.

    We all love the Museum of the American Indian–it’s one of the newest additions. We’ve been twice now, and we still haven’t seen everything. There are lots of touchscreens to learn more, and we haven’t scratched the surface of everything to read.

    If you are limited on time and can only see a few places, Metro is definitely the way to go.

  9. Len Foster says:

    Never been to DC but I when I go somewhere new I usually ask a local the best way to see the sights and it’s worked so far

  10. Revanche says:

    You mean you didn’t get J.Money to cough up all the secrets?

    Seriously, I’m sorry that was such a bust. I remember taking the train down from Philly and meeting up with a friend’s uncle who worked for the Capitol police. I didn’t have his cell phone number, but all I had to do was stop any Capitol policeman and ask him to radio in a request for him to come out.

    It was pretty awesome as Congress wasn’t in session and he could take me almost anywhere in Capitol Hill, narrating the whole way. The tour we did take together was the DC Ducks tour and that was hilarious because the driver let me take over in amphibious mode. I’m sure it helped that I seemed like a little kid. ;)

  11. asithi says:

    I been to DC twice and I love it. Almost everything is free and is within walking distance from the Metro. If not for the cost of the hotel, we would visit it more often.

  12. If you can get yourself elected to Congress you can add a few more zeros to that $55.

    I live close enough to DC to take day trips down on the Metro. The main tourist sites are concentrated within walking distance of each other. Next time you make the trip, skip the bus tour and walk to save yourself a little dough. Just about all the sites are free.

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